Story by Larissa Wurm
The School of Journalism and Mass Communication is experimenting with a new tool: a drone.
“Journalists all across the world are starting to use these to capture information for storytelling,” said David Wright, associate dean and professor at the journalism school. “Better or worse, it’s part of the journalism culture right now.”
What the journalism professors want to do is prompt debate and discussion about drones and the implications of similar technology.
“What we want to experiment with is the technology and what are the ethical implications of it, the operational implications, what are the privacy implications of it,” Wright said. “With relatively little expense, we can experiment.”
“We’re in the baby steps right now, figuring out as we bring this in, what it can do.”
Kathleen Richardson, the director of the journalism school, says that other universities and schools have whole programs dedicated to drones, but that is not the intent of the department.
“We want to look at it in the context of classes in a controlled environment,”Richardson said. “It will be interesting and educational for students. It’s not just journalists that are using these. It’s other professions, too.”
The original idea for buying a drone came from journalism professors Lori Blachford and Chris Snider.
“I saw it in a photo magazine in the ‘Best Buys for 2013’ section,” Snider said. “I had no idea they were that cheap, so I posted on the faculty Facebook page that we should get one. It’s a good idea to see how they can work, then discuss how it could be used for various things.”
“I just want to open up students’ eyes and show them another option,” Snider said. “I want them to think about it.”
The drone, which cost $300, is about two feet wide with four blades that include a protective device around them for inside use. It’s controlled by an iPhone or iPad using an app and can be controlled up to 150 feet away, with a battery life of roughly 15 minutes. It has two video cameras (one on the front, one on the bottom).
“It’s a very lightweight device,” Wright said. “This is not something we are going to launch in high winds on campus. Very few people would learn and have control over it. Test flights will be in a very calm, controlled environment with not a lot of people around.”
Because of federal flight rules, the drone can only be flown over Drake property.
“For the time being, it’s more about the discussion. It’s an experiment, to see what it looks like, to make students think about it before they go off in the broadcast environment.” Wright said. “It’s current technology, it’s very interesting, but we aren’t going to be buzzing around campus all the time.”
Once more is learned about the drone and how it works, there are many different opportunities and ways it could be used on campus and for the university.
“We could use it at athletic events at the stadium, not only for class. It’d be wonderful for (Drake) Relays,” Wright said. “The idea of Relays, of events, and if it’s controllable enough, it’s built to fly indoors and outdoors and do a video tour of campus. It’d be really interesting for promotional use along with news.”
After the process for getting a drone had started, professors had to think about the different departments on campus they would have to alert, including the IT (information technology) department and security. Another question that came up then -—could security use a drone, not immediately, but in the future?
“Well OK, that’s not inconceivable for security to have their own drone,” Wright said. “It’s not in plans, but it’s not a far stretch. … We get those security alerts all the time when something happens on campus. If something happens, do we want a drone overhead looking for a suspect?”
All professors had one thing in common when discussing the drone coming to campus: They want to prompt thought and discussion.
“We can justify spending three hundred to experiment on something,” Wright said. “We want the students to think about the implications of it, and if we can teach with that, so that they can see it and think about the implications, that’s what learning is about.”
“There will be curiosity and some people will be very concerned about the privacy issues. Good. We should have that discussion,” said Wright.
Richardson said “We pride ourselves on being on the forefront of technological evolution and this is just another example. We feel it’s very important for our students.”
The drone was purchased by the E.T. Meredith Center for Magazine Studies, which is “a resource for the Drake community, encouraging the study of current as well as historical issues” as a part of the magazine journalism program.